Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his Circle/Chapter 8


Rossetti and Spiritualism and Mesmerism—Some mediums—Daniel Home—Bergheim—The Master of Lindsay—Theodore Watts-Dunton—A mesmeric entertainment.

It was about the first year or so of my intimacy with Rossetti that table-turning, spirit-rapping, planchettes, and spiritualism under its many phases had taken hold of society, and provided the trifles of the day. Whether Rossetti had any real belief in spiritualism, or whether he wanted to persuade himself that he had, I can hardly say. He was of a highly imaginative nature, and everything that appertained to the mystic had a strange fascination for him. In spiritualism he took an interest for some time; he went to all the private seances to which he happened to be invited, and now and again would give me an account of some of them, when such well-known mediums as Mrs. Guppy,89 Mrs. Fawcett,90 and Daniel Home,91 and others were present. The result of witnessing the performances of these professionals was that Rossetti thought that he, too, would have little seances at home, and from time to time Whistler, Bell Scott, and a few other friends would meet together at Cheyne Walk to have their own experiences of the matter. On these occasions the spirit-rapping and gyrations of tables would be carried on until the uncanny hour of midnight. As each of the experimenters was suspicious of his neighbour's honesty when the table became rampant, the results were mostly unsatisfactory. At one or two of these meetings, I remember, some remarkable messages were received from the spirits, which could not be accounted for.

Mesmerism Rossetti had a reasonable faith in. He was in a great measure led to this belief from having met one night, at a friend's house, a Mr. Bergheim,92 who possessed extraordinary powers in this direction. So impressed was he with what he had seen on this occasion that he asked him to come one evening to Cheyne Walk to give a proof of his mesmeric powers to a few friends he intended to invite to meet him, and who would be interested in Bergheim's experiments. Amongst the party were Morris, the Master of Lindsay,93 Leyland, Sala, and Theodore Watts-Dunton.94 Watts-Dunton used to be Rossetti's confidant of much that he did not speak of to his general friends.

The entertainment in question was held in a lordly pleasure marquee, which Rossetti had caused to be erected in the spacious garden at the rear of the house. This tent was furnished in a very luxurious manner: couches, comfortable chairs, many-countried cabinets, Persian rugs, and such flowers as were in bloom were dispersed profusely within, and gave it a delightful Eastern appearance.

When all the party were assembled, conversation upon the occult became general. After awhile, the Master of Lindsay related a wondrous story: that some time previously he was with Home the spiritualist whose name was then on everybody's tongue and saw him, whilst in a mesmerised state, rise from off the floor and ascend to the ceiling of the apartment he was in, which was a very lofty one, sufficiently lofty, indeed, to enable the narrator to catch hold of Home's foot as he rose above his head, and to find that in spite of all endeavour to keep him down he still ascended, leaving his shoe in his hand. And also that, on another occasion, he had seen him float out of one of the windows of the room they occupied into the open air, and re-appear a few minutes afterwards floating through the next. This was related by the Master of Lindsay in such perfect belief and simplicity, that we could but listen and, wondering, accept his assertions accordingly.

Of course, Howell had something equally wonderful to tell, and, as far as I recollect, it was in connection with Richard Burton,95 the traveller and orientalist, with whom he professed to have gone through supernatural experiences of a most astounding nature. Then arose and spoke Sala. He had just come up from the Broadmoor criminal lunatic asylum, and he gave us a most interesting account of some of the inmates confined there for murder. He had seen Constance Kent.96 Usually she was very quiet and reserved, but she had recurrent fits of madness that came on with the full moon. Then her depravity would break out and find vent in the most violent actions and Billingsgate language, so that it was only with the greatest difficulty she could be managed. It was on one of these occasions he had seen her. Edward Oxford,97 who shot at the Queen some years ago, he also mentioned as having seen. There was nothing remarkable about him in any way. He was very quiet, and employed in doing portions of the rough painting-work that was required in the establishment. Another and much more interesting criminal was the artist, Richard Dadd,98 who was detained there for murdering his father on Blackheath Common many years ago. A terrible idea had weaved itself into his disordered brain—that it was his mission to kill the devil! And that notion, worming itself deeper and deeper into all his thoughts, caused him to wake up one morning with the conviction that his father was the devil. He took him for a walk and slew him. The Broadmoor authorities were allowed to furnish him with paints and brushes, and other necessaries for painting, and much of his time was occupied in making designs of the wildest and most ghastly character. Sala found him at work upon a picture of Job suffering from the plague of boils. The boils were depicted in every stage, and in the most microscopic manner, and he seemed to take a delight in painting them, licking his brush over an extra ulcerous one. There were a good many of his designs, so Sala said, about the cell he occupied, all painted with extreme finish and photographic minuteness. One especially noticeable was of Richard III., after having slain his two nephews. He was depicted as holding up his sword high aloft, and catching in his mouth the blood drops as they fell. Then, in parenthesis, Sala told us how Dadd, having killed his father, escaped from the scene of his crime and took his guilty flight to Dover, and from thence crossed the Channel with the intention of going to Paris. On his way thither, he still found himself in doubt as to whether, after all, he had accomplished his mission or not. In the compartment of the railway carriage that he had taken a place in, was a fellow-traveller. They entered into a conversation which lasted well-nigh the whole journey. Dadd, still in doubt, began to fancy his companion was the devil incarnate, whom it was his mission to kill. Through the window of the carriage he gazed at the heavens and looked for a sign from it. The sun was setting and the sky full of threatening rain-clouds. It seemed borne in upon him that if the sun sank in serene and unclouded splendour, his fellow-traveller's life must be spared, but if otherwise, he saw his duty and was resolved to do it. The sun sunk below the horizon cloudlessly, and his companion little knew of the fate he had escaped.

These various relations were interrupted by the arrival of the two young women whom Bergheim had arranged should be his mediums for the evening. Hearing that they were on their way to the tent, he mesmerized them before they appeared, so that they both entered in a clairvoyant state. Rossetti's surprise at this was great. Not long after, Bergheim asked him to act in an improvised little drama that he had thought of. Rossetti was to be a sailor, and act with the medium selected as though he were going to join his ship, which was about to sail on a long-service cruise. So, taking his cue, he told her a prettily-concocted tale of his being ordered away that night on Her Majesty's service, which the girl listened to with the greatest emotion. Another of the party then came forward, and represented himself as a naval officer sent by the captain to take him aboard; the anchor having been weighed, the captain was anxious to set sail. When this was told her, and she found her sailor must leave her, she got into a terribly excited state, and threatened to stab the man who would separate them. At last, however, she allowed Rossetti to be taken away, and as soon as he had disappeared through the tent awning and could no more be seen, she fell to the ground in a fit of hysterical weeping.

Another of the party, a somewhat heavy man, was then asked to lie down on the ground, which he did. The mesmerist directed the medium's attention to him, scolding her as if she were a careless nursemaid in charge of a small child, and telling her that there was a carriage and a pair of runaway horses galloping down a supposed lane, and that unless she could rescue the child in time it would inevitably be run over and killed. In a terrible fright, she ran to the supposititious child, picked him up and carried him away to a safe place with all the ease that a grown-up young woman would a child of three or four years of age.

There were many other scenes of a similar kind enabled, until Bergheim thought his mediums were exhausted. When he restored them to their usual condition, by a few passes and a smart tap on the shoulder, I asked one of them if she knew what she had been doing, but she seemed quite unconscious of what had taken place, save that she thought sleep had overcome her, in which she dreamt something too indistinct to remember. I witnessed all these things, and to me they appeared quite unaccountable. If the two girls brought hither by Bergheim were in collusion with him, why they must have been equal to the best actresses that ever trod the stage. Even granting that they were acting their parts, I cannot make out how the medium who lifted up one of us off the ground could have got her strength, for it was done without any undue exertion, and she was but an ordinary type of a little London milliner.